When I was young, a friend and I drove my car to the short north of Columbus. I was looking for a used tuxedo to purchase for the junior senior banquet at our high school. As we passed the store, we quickly turned into an alley between the buildings to get to the parking area behind the store. All went well. I found an affordable tuxedo, went back to the car, and drove down the alley behind the store. It was then that I noticed two things simultaneously: (1) the police car, and (2) the one-way sign. That situation was eventually resolved when I went to court and spoke to the judge.
When you are given a traffic ticket that you feel was undeserved, you are given the opportunity to stand before a judge and to contest the ticket. If this has ever happened to you, you know that everyone has an opinion of how you ought to go about it. Some tell you that you should be respectful but firm. Others say that you should show confidence because any show of doubt will influence the way the judge rules. However, no amount of advice will really prepare you to stand before the judge. You just have to do it and hope for the best.
Standing before a human judge can be intimidating. But think what it would be like to stand before God. Someday, we will all stand before the judgment seat and we will have to answer for our lives. As you are probably aware, God’s standard for righteousness (goodness) is holiness (no sin). None of us can meet that standard. But despite this fact, there are still some who cling to their own righteousness expecting God to be impressed with how they have lived their lives.
This seems to be the case with some of the people who were influencing the Philippian church. They made the Jewish rite of circumcision so important that they believed it was required for someone to be made right with God. Paul addressed this several times in the previous verses and in other parts of the Bible. But in the verses that follow, he showed the foolishness of trusting in your own achievements to be considered righteous by God.
- I am confident in myself and my achievements (Philippians 3:4-8).
This statement summarizes the idea that Paul was fighting against. The Judaizers’ idea of having to go through the rite of circumcision was a confidence in their own achievements. To make his readers think, Paul listed off some of his own achievements to show the foolishness of trusting in their own righteousness. He was saying, in other words, if you are going to brag about your accomplishments, then see if you can match mine.
a. Paul’s record (4-6)
What was Paul’s record? It was very good from the perspective of someone who is trying to make himself look good to others. It seems that he came from the perfect Jewish family and had lived according to all the standards imposed by the Pharisees. In these verses, Paul lists seven things that made him an ideal candidate to boast in his own accomplishments.
“If anyone could have been saved by religion, Saul of Tarsus would have been the man” (McGee 312).
“Two kinds of advantages are enumerated. First are those things which the apostle had by birth, apart from his choice. Four of these are listed—circumcision, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew son of Hebrew parents” (Lightner 660).
He had been circumcised the 8th day.
Remember how the false teachers were making circumcision to be the evidence that someone was right with God? Well, Paul told them that he had been circumcised when he was only 8 days old. This indicated that he “was neither a proselyte, circumcised as an adult, nor an Ishmaelite, circumcised (as Josephus tells us… ) at thirteen, but a member of the covenant from infancy” (Moule 87).
He was an Israelite.
The false teachers were making a big deal about Jewish customs because of what parts of the Old Testament says. Because the Israelites were the special people of God, selected out of all people to be God’s own people, Paul mentioned that he was not a proselyte who converted to Judaism. He was actually from a Jewish family. He was one of the people of God.
He was from the tribe of Benjamin.
Many of you know that I love animals. A few years ago, I found out that there are certain specialty cats that have a high pedigree. Some are bred with wild cats from Africa and are almost like having a dog. The only thing is that these cats go for about $15,000 each. Now if you were going to buy a cat for that amount of money, I would imagine that you would want proof that it was actually one of these special cats.
When people start making a big deal about spiritual pedigree, it can get to be ridiculous. They think that their genealogical roots prove that they are of better stock than others. Paul mentioned that he was from the tribe of Benjamin. Being from that tribe may not seem special to us today, but to Jewish people, the tribe had provided several national heroes: Ehud the judge, Saul the king, and Mordecai during the captivity. Paul was related to these great heroes.
He was a proper Hebrew.
What is a Hebrew of the Hebrews? At the time that Paul was writing this book, a number of Jewish people had moved away from Israel and had been assimilated into other cultures. Jews who lived outside of Israel often spoke Greek as their primary language and were much like any other person in their country. Although Paul was from Tarsus, he had parents who taught him the Hebrew language so that he would be a proper Hebrew. There was no compromise of his Hebrew-ness despite being born outside of Israel.
Summary: None of these characteristics were things that Paul had accomplished by himself. So, it seems silly to boast about them. But that is what happens when someone starts bragging about himself. They start taking credit for things that they didn’t even do. And I think that is the subtle point that Paul is making. All of these things were important to the false teachers, but none of them were impressive to God.
While the first four statements were things that Paul received by birth or the choices of his parents, the next “brags” were things that he did accomplish himself “—being a Pharisee, being a persecutor of the church, and having a flawless external record of legalistic righteousness” (Lightner 660).
He was a Pharisee.
Someone who is impressed with associations would have been impressed by Paul’s association with the Pharisees. This group was “the strictest sect among his people. In addition to the Law of Moses the Pharisees added their own regulations which in time were interpreted as equal to the Law” (Lightner 660). You may recall that the Pharisees often clashed with Jesus because He did not follow the extra laws they had come up with.
So why would the false teachers by impressed with the Pharisees? Remember that the false teachers were big on doing things to become righteous. So were the Pharisees. This was the common link. Both wanted to impress God with the amount of laws they kept and the things that they did. Paul’s former membership in the Pharisee group should have impressed these people.
He was very zealous.
We are often impressed by people who are zealous. These are the people who put their whole life into what they believe. They spend enormous amounts of energy doing things to show how much things mean to them. Before Paul met Jesus, he was very zealous as a Pharisee. “Paul thought he was doing God’s will when he persecuted the church. The other Pharisees were willing to relax when they had run the Christians out of Jerusalem, but Paul was determined to ferret them out all over the world” (McGee 313).
Paul was an example of zealous service to God. Although he was not doing what was right at the time, could anyone doubt that he believed he was doing what was right? As they saw him fight against Christians, there were few who matched his intensity. He was like the zealous Muslims who are willing to go to great lengths to show their dedication to their false god. Could any of the false teachers match his intensity?
He was a blameless person.
The false teachers were very insistent on personal righteousness. Because they were trying to showcase their accomplishments to God and people, they should have been impressed with Paul’s former religious life. He was blameless “from the point of view of the Pharisaic legalist” (Moule 89). This doesn’t mean that he believed himself to be perfect or without sin. Instead, he was saying that any Pharisee would have looked at his life and marveled at how well he obeyed religious law. From the outside, he was blameless.
There are times when people today come up with a list of things they have achieved to make themselves feel righteous. These things don’t make them right with God but they do build some type of confidence. What do people have on their list? They were born into a Christian family, baptized as a baby, confirmed by their church, attended Sunday School, attended a Christian high school, attended a Christian college, went on a missions trip, sang in the choir, taught a Sunday School class, served as a deacon or trustee, gave money to the church or a missionary, helped the poor, etc.
The list could go on and on but is it worth anything to God? Look at the next two verses to see what Paul thought about his list of previous achievements.
b. Paul’s response (7-8)
Paul had taken a moment to brag about his past accomplishments. He wasn’t really confident in his previous accomplishments but he wanted to contrast those things with what he found in Christ.
He viewed his achievements as loss (7-8a).
Paul was a big deal with Pharisees. They looked up to him as a zealous defender of the truth. He was the type of Pharisee who would have won the MVP trophy every year. But all of this didn’t matter to Paul. He considered all of these accolades as a loss. But what exactly did that mean? The term is “used for a loss at sea (Acts 27:10) and used in the papyri of a commercial or business loss” (Rienecker 557). It is as if Paul had invested time and effort into doing things that never brought any spiritual profit for him.
At one point, I invested a small amount of money into General Motors stocks. My goal had been to invest in something I believed in and being a car guy, this seemed like the thing to do. But around 2008, I quickly realized that this investment was not going to profit me anything. I sold my stocks at a loss. Most of the money I had invested was lost.
As you consider the background and accomplishments of Paul, you might think that he was the most likely to succeed in the game of life. However, Paul had a different view. He viewed all of those things as a loss. They were not worth investing in when compared to Christ. Why is that? Putting your confidence in yourself will never work when it comes to pleasing God. He knows us better than we do ourselves. Our actions or pedigree don’t impress God. What we really need is not more action but simple faith in Christ.
If you have come to know Jesus, you know this to be true. When you understood that God is not looking for your goodness but that He has provided everything for us in Jesus, you probably let out a sigh of relief. “It’s not my righteousness but Christ’s righteousness!” Knowing that makes all the difference.
He viewed his achievements as rubbish (8).
In polite society, there are certain words that are not to be used. When I was growing up, we knew that using these words would get us in trouble. Paul didn’t seem to know this. If you are reading from a KJV Bible, you will see the word “dung.” If you are reading from the NKJV, you will see the word “rubbish.” Which is it?
The word used by Paul “refers either to human excrement … or it refers to the refuse or leavings of a feast, the food thrown away from the table” (Rienecker 557). I suppose that it doesn’t matter which word is used. Whether it is the contents of an outhouse or the worthless trash left over after a meal, neither is something that you would bag up and take home with you. Instead, you would be very eager to get rid of them. Why? Because they are worthless.
This was Paul’s point. When he looked at all he had accomplished as a Jewish zealot, he didn’t think any of it was worth presenting to God. All of it was like something smelly you might bag up and toss in the garbage. All of his accomplishments were rubbish to Paul when he found all that he needed in Christ.
So many people are trying to impress God with their actions or so-called pedigree. They think that they are special in God’s eyes because of their family or their hard work for the church. But what they fail to recognize is that none of that is something asked for by God. He doesn’t care about your actions. He doesn’t care about your family background. What He wants is for you to realize that there is nothing you can do to make yourself righteousness enough to overcome your own sin and guilt.
This is why God sent Jesus to earth. Jesus was God in human form. He came to earth, lived a perfect life, and then died in our place. Why did He do that? Well, one thing is certain. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for your sins so that you could live a good life and impress God. If God wanted each of us to try really hard to become good enough, why would He have sent Jesus to die in our place? It wouldn’t make any sense. Jesus died to pay the price for our sins. And now all who put their trust in Him are forgiven and viewed according to Jesus’ righteousness and not our own.
Do you understand that? If you understand that, then God wants you to stop trusting in your own good deeds. Instead, He wants you to turn from your sin and place your faith in what He accomplished for you through Jesus. Will you do that today?
become righteous enough to earn His favor. Instead, He provided the righteousness of Christ to cover our sinfulness.
Lightfoot, J. B., St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, pp. 145-49.
Lightner, Robert P., “Philippians” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, USA: SP Publications, 1983, pp. 659-60.
McGee, J. Vernon, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, 1 Corinthians through Revelation, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983, pp. 312-14.
Moule, H. C. G., The Epistle to the Philippians, Cambridge: The University Press, 1889, pp. 87-91.
Rienecker, Fritz and Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980, pp. 556-57.